In Praise of the Vilified Prologue: Top 10 Novels with Prologues

Loving Frank Photo-Cindy Fazzi

“Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan is a great example of a book with an effective prologue.

In Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 rules for writing, the second rule is: Avoid prologues. “They can be annoying,” he wrote. “A prologue in a novel is back story, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”

Leonard, the author of “Get Shorty” and other best-selling crime novels, was not alone. There are many writing books and articles that say the same thing. I’ve heard the same advice in writing conferences, as well.

What is a Prologue?

The term prologue is used in fiction. It comes before the actual beginning of a story. It’s not the same as foreword, which is usually an endorsement or an explanation of the book, and is written by another person, whose name typically appears at the end of the foreword.

While most novels identify a section as prologue, there are some that don’t. The top two novels on my list belong to the latter. “Loving Frank” has four-and-a-half pages of italicized text before the first chapter that read like a diary entry. “The Piano Tuner” has similar italicized text, plus a letter addressed to the protagonist.

Anti-Prologue Rule

While it’s true that in many cases, prologues don’t work, it doesn’t mean prologues are always bad. In fact, there are many writers who have pulled it off. The image of a woman walking under a parasol in Daniel Mason’s prologue in “The Piano Tuner” has stayed with me many years after I read the book.

I understand Leonard’s rule. I’ve never written a prologue in my manuscripts, but I’ve enjoyed reading them in other people’s work. I have a beef with the anti-prologue rule as well as the rule against the use of the present tense in a novel. Some people won’t even pick up a book if it has a prologue or if it’s in the present tense. Blanket statements like these are narrow-minded.

Top 10 Novels with Prologues that Work

Here are 10 novels off the top of my head that prove prologue critics wrong. I’m sure there are many others I haven’t read. How about you? Share your favorite novel with a prologue; leave a comment below.

  1. “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan
  2. “The Piano Tuner” by Daniel Mason
  3. “Montana 1948” by Larry Watson
  4. “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco
  5. “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline
  6. “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen
  7. “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham
  8. “Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane
  9. “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho
  10. “The Promise” by Ann Weisgarber

In addition to the abovementioned novels, there are two books I love with short text that could be considered a prologue— “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan (one page of italicized text) and “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold (half page).

To read Elmore Leonard’s writing rules, click here.

Read other stories about books that break the rules:

In Praise of the Unpopular Omniscient POV: “All the Light We Cannot See”

In Praise of the Hated Adverb…Seriously

 In Praise of the Here and Now: Top 10 Present-Tense Novels

In Praise of the Perilous Multiple POVs: William Martin’s “Citizen Washington”

 

Leave a comment

18 Comments

  1. My first novel has a prologue that I think absolutely provides the right entrance to the book. But my second novel, which is still in revision, has one too, and I’m questioning it. Even more so now 🙂

    Reply
  2. Hi Rachel. In writing workshops, the advice was: Try reading your first chapter (or the entire manuscript) without the prologue. If it’s OK without it, then skip it. It really depends on the story and how you write the prologue. Lots of luck and thanks for visiting.

    Reply
  3. I think a prologue works sometimes; each story needs to be considered under its own merits. On my editor’s advice, I changed the prologue to chapter 1. So far, I’ve dropped the prologue from all my books-in-waiting. Most of the books I’m reading on the Kindle use a prologue. There were a few that I would have made “Chapter 1”.

    Reply
    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! Like you, I once tried writing a prologue, but realized it was better as the first chapter.

      Reply
  4. Good concept! Nice to see this compilation.

    Reply
  5. Gus

     /  August 24, 2015

    Best prologue ever is from Tana French’s Into the Woods. Unfortunately, the prologue was by far the best part of the novel.

    Reply
    • Hi Gus. I love Tana French–and enjoyed “Into the Woods.” But I don’t remember the prologue anymore.I’ll have to find my copy and check it out. Thanks for visiting.

      Reply
  6. Just goes to show once more “never say never.” 🙂 Excellent post, Cindy.

    Reply
  7. The Prince of Tides… Pat Conroy

    Reply
  8. Reblogged this on CKBooks Publishing and commented:
    I actually haven’t read or heard that a prologue is frowned upon. Maybe because someone in the book world thinks a writer should be able to catch a reader’s attention in the beginning of the book without such a device, which is why most writers use a prologue, is it not? I don’t have any problem with prologues and I don’t mind going against what something thinks a book is supposed to be like, if it works for the story. That is the most important thing, as the noted books in this blog illustrate.

    Reply
  1. “Under the Wide and Starry Sky”: No Sophomore Slump for Nancy Horan | Cindy Fazzi
  2. The Mother of All Lists: Top 5 Blog Posts about Lists | Cindy Fazzi
  3. Embrace Your Inner Anglophile: Top 10 British Novels | Cindy Fazzi
  4. In Praise of the Unpopular Omniscient POV: “All the Light We Cannot See” | Cindy Fazzi
  5. Top 10 Character Descriptions that Defy Elmore Leonard’s Writing Rule | Cindy Fazzi
  6. In Praise of the Perilous Multiple POVs: William Martin’s “Citizen Washington” | Cindy Fazzi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: